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Full text of "[untitled] Art and Progress, (1914-01-01)"

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THE STREET DANCE 



JEROME MYERS 



COLLECTION OF JAMES SI'EYER. ESQ. 



JEROME MYERS 



BY GUY PENE DU BOIS 



NO art occurrence of recent years 
here has so thoroughly ruffled our 
placid attitude toward art in general as 
did the exhibition of Modern Art held 
in the Armory of the Sixty-ninth Infan- 
try Regiment. The extremists of the 
varied gathering mirrored in the minds 
of those who viewed them sentiments 
very similar to those they expressed. 
The layman and the artist alike were 
put out of step. Art seemed to have 
bridged a chasm beyond which lay the 
pinnacle of glory or the grave of obliv- 
ion. For the first time in our history 
official artists, losing their composure 
and forgetting to laugh, became angry. 
Here was the gravest and the newest in- 
sult to art. The Independents ever on 
the lookout for the new, ever ready to 
cheer the "fearless," found here an out- 
let for an exuberance long suppressed. 
A great many of this side of art's battle- 



field cast caution aside along with 
theories cherished for a lifetime. Only 
indifferent onlookers smiled or laughed 
outright. These saw neither good nor 
bad in the new movement. It was differ- 
ent and, in comparison to all precedent, 
grotesque, nothing more nor less. Groups 
of artists in the armory argued a great 
deal and questioned more. Mr. Chase, 
the sixth time, left the show angrier 
than he did the first. Mr. Davies be- 
came more and more enchanted. 

It is characteristic of Jerome Myers, 
whom this article concerns, that, amid 
the turmoil all the time, he remained the 
one man who neither questioned nor ridi- 
culed nor praised nor blamed the new 
art. Quietly and inauspiciously he 
studied it. He found good and bad and 
balanced them with the art that he knew 
or, better still, with life. Above every- 
thing or rather despite everything he re- 

89 



90 



ART AND PROGRESS 



mained Jerome Myers, a sane and a 
sincere man. The conveyance he em- 
ploys to carry his ideas to us may 
change a little; in time, it may change 
a lot; but we may be certain that it will 
not change until he has adapted it to 
suit his own purpose, and that is until it 
will convey to you and to me the desired 
expression. 

Mr. Myers is a real Independent. He 
speaks a language at once direct, force- 
ful and individual. By this I mean that 
it is neither a borrowed nor influenced 
language given this or that turn by the 
fad of the hour. The makers of indexes, 
who have found the words cubism, futur- 
ism, post-impressionism along with a 
great galaxy of isms and applied them 
with as much relevancy as they did in 
years past the word impressionism, have 
put Jerome Myers in the pigeonhole al- 
lotted to the realists. He does not be- 
long there. With Mr. Arthur B. Davies 
and one or two others in America he is 
to be pointed out as an artist whose in- 
spiration has been borrowed from nature 
without an introduction from a school of 
painting, of preconceived ideas that 
would have made everything easier for 
him. He has fought and is fighting, for 
the battle is far from over, alone, bow- 
ing neither to the right nor to the left, 
compromising with the art or the lay 
public neither in his speech nor in his 
ideals. I mean here that he is not what 
the writers term a library philosopher, 
and which in the case of an artist would 
stand very well by supplanting "library" 
with museum. 

He has studied pictures but he has not 
plagiarized from pictures. Our artists 
have followed, like our modistes, styles 
set in the French capital. Once in a 
while as a mark of independence, per- 
haps, they have swerved from France to 
Germany — we have suffered the effects 
of the Dusseldorf school as much as any 
nation — or gone over to England or to 
Italy to study the Florentines. Mr. 
Myers went to London and to Paris and 
hated them both. He did not want an 
artistic atmosphere which to him must 
have been a fog — a veil drawn over the 
nakedness of nature. Back in America 



the struggle for existence precluded the 
possibility of that fog. Life as he knew 
it from boyhood up was here scarred 
with lines inflicted by defeat or made 
beautiful by the not less deep ones 
earned in a victorious struggle. He had 
run away from a home left nearly des- 
titute by a father who appeared there, at 
rare intervals, to tell vague stories of 
riches to accrue from mines in Cali- 
fornia. He had been through the mill 
when New York saw him first. He was 
to go through it here again and again. 
But he was to lose none of his ideals and 
to realize many of them. 

The art that surrounded him when he 
began to produce pictures some twenty 
years ago owed its thesis to an idealism 
that, with no basic foundation in fact or 
in nature, had become superficial and 
puerile. The majority of Americans re- 
turning here from Paris brought with 
them a thorough academic training re- 
ceived at the hands of Laurens or 
Bouguereau or Gerome. Technique had 
formed for them an opaque wall with 
life and its human imperfections on the 
other side an unknown and an uncon- 
sidered quantity. Beauty then was a 
matter to be secured and stamped on 
canvas not by the study of nature but 
by strict adherence to the rule book of 
proportions and of values. Truth, when 
Truth entered at all into the propaganda, 
trooped into the photographer's field and 
reproduced details in the manner of 
Meissonier or of J. G. Brown, cast off 
the artist's right to select and to omit 
and became commonplace reproduction. 

Young Myers labored all day at varied 
occupations to earn his daily bread. 
(One of his chums of that time is still 
selling lavender at the same stand in 
Fourteenth Street. Myers' Mission Tent 
is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — 
but that is another story.) At night he 
divided his time between the Art Stu- 
dents' League and the public libraries. 
Always he gathered some atom of learn- 
ing and never, I am certain, did he take 
anything for granted. He has never 
spent time playing, in the ordinary sense 
— indeed the one exercise of his youth 
was walking — but may it not be that in 




4 "V*v ?%■ 



PLAYGROUND. HUDSON STREET PARK. NEW YORK 



JEROME MYERS 



the study of people he found the relaxa- 
tion we all require? 

For the greater part of his life he has 
lived and worked among the poor. Thus 
he may be said to be a painter of the 
poor by sympathy rather than by design. 
He has been described slightly as a 
painter of street scenes — he is and is 
not. He is rather a painter of a people. 
Moreover it seems to me that the title 
painter itself is fit subject for quarrel — 
it is too definite. Mr. Myers is a painter 
incidently. The important thing — the 
significant thing — about Mr. Myers is 
not technical, which the word painter 
must suggest. The important and sig- 
nificant thing about Mr. Myers is the 
thing that he has to say. Insisting on 
this I must insist that whether he ex- 
presses himself through painting, writing 
or music is matter of little moment. 

He has been or rather is called a real- 
ist. Now realism centers more or less 



about what are called the facts of life. 
All realists make a boast of truth — some 
follow its shadow with fidelity, like dogs, 
and render superficial aspects of the ob- 
vious parrotwise; others take the essence 
of it and build a better resemblance. I 
think that realists are troubled least of 
all painters by that troublesome thing 
the selection of subject matter, for 
realism with its generous eyes wide open 
encompasses the whole of nature. A 
realist like Robert Henri paints a 
painted lady, who is a natural symbol- 
ist, a masquerader, or a very real work- 
ing man, with the same unprejudiced 
love — the face and the mask are alike fit 
subjects for his brush. Everything that 
lives and breathes, no matter the shell, 
every aspect of humanity, looms up big 
to the comprehensive eye of such a real- 
ist — a thing worth while. He is a real- 
ist, I think, by chance; he is not in love 
with realism in life, he is rather in love 



91 




THE NIGHT MISSION 



JLKOMI'i M 1 fAiS 



METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART 



with realism in the abstract, I mean real- 
ism in reproduction. 

It is here that Jerome Myers, who, to 
an extent, is a classicist, seems the 
greater realist and is the greater realist 
at heart. He has no patience with pow- 
der and paint, no patience with the hair 
dresser, the manicure and the beauty 
doctor, nor yet with another weapon em- 
ployed to destroy reality — the suave so- 
cial etiquette. He is Diogenes with the 
lantern, but more successful than the 
classic figure for he seeks not moral hon- 
esty but the honesty of the sincere man 
blurting out his evil along with his good. 
That is another reason why, perhaps, he 
has been particularly attracted to the 
lower East Side of New York City, 
where sham, I mean the masquerader's 
sham, is less apparent than elsewhere. 
The sociologist may battle with this last 
statement, claiming the existence of a 
comparative similarity in all of the many 



stations of the social railway, and have 
to an extent the better end of the battle. 
You may anyway find analogies wher- 
ever you seek them. The symbolist's 
search, carried over an inevitably fruit- 
ful field, must perforce yield results. 
And it seems to me that poverty is a 
friend to reality and allied with it most 
fiercely in the defeat of shaYn. A starved 
stomach might be said tritely to be no 
respector of persons, and synonymously 
likely to reign despotically over the vain 
whims at play-acting of the muscles of 
a sorely tried face. 

And then civilization, leaving aside 
the question of its place on the honorary 
scale, the great suppresser of primitive 
emotion, gains ground but slowly where 
the idea of existence is linked with un- 
breakable iron to that of struggle. The 
open-hearted, open-faced children of the 
world are to be found most readily 
among the poor, among those held to the 




OLD HOUSE. CLINTON AND DELANCY STREETS. A DRAWING BY JEROME MYERS 



grindstone by a not always victorious 
battle for life, who have little time for 
culture, and less stomach for its subtle 
twists, so many and so varied; for self- 
analysis a mirror in which man often as 
not loses his personality, his sincerity, 
his sense of truth. 

Down along the piers of the East 
River made free to a people to whom 
even smoke-tainted fresh air is a treat, 
in congested streets, walled in by houses 
pouring humanity or its evidences from 
every aperture, in city parks where, wise 
or unwise as you will, missionary socie- 
ties regulate the play of children and, by 



suppression, wise or unwise again, are 
beginning to instill the rudiments of 
higher civilization, Myers finds his sub- 
jects — finds the essential realism. 

Now, out of this particular choice of 
subject, or from a misunderstanding of 
its purport, has arisen the charge — it is 
made detrimentally by numbers — that 
Myers is employing art — that has come 
despite Tolstoy to mean a disinterested 
expression — to further socialism. Per- 
haps that should be termed a misuse of 
art, perhaps not — I do not know. The 
majority deriding the purposeful art of 
England says that it is. However that 

93 



94 



ART AND PROGRESS 



may be. Myers as an artist is nothing 
better nor worse than a humanist and a 
realist. And he is nothing better nor 
worse as a man — the man and the art- 
ist are as the}' should be inseparable. 
The charge of socialism naturally is de- 
rived from the idea that Myers is preach- 
ing the propriety, nay, the necessity, of 
helping the poor to a better existence 
by a more equal division of the spoils, 
by painting their misery, their abject- 
ness, the squalid dejection of their pres- 
ent state and thus moving sympathy. 

As a matter of fact Myers, more than, 
I am sure, a very great many of us, be- 
lieves that the poor are very well as they 
are, that the East Side is very well as it 
is. He is not in sympathy with the work 
of the rich invaders of it who judge from 
their own standards, nor yet with that 
association whose representatives are 
stationed at public playgrounds there to 
teach children how to become rid of su- 
perfluous energy, how to play, that is, 
by forcing upon them constraint in the 
form of rules and regulations, set laws 
by which to fetter youthful impulse. He 
understands the people, has lived with 
them, been happy or sorrowful with 
them. His pictures show that the bal- 
ance of joy and distress is as evenly 
kept there as it is elsewhere. 

He paints a Recreation Pier and a 
bread line, a concert at the Mall in Cen- 
tral Park, a Mission Tent in the heart 
of the Ghetto, a playground surrounded 
by iron fences and containing formal 
buildings, a street in which the houses 
are aged, wrinkled, characterful, sincere 
as their occupants; he paints children 
dancing with graceful natural gestures 
to the tune of a street organ, and their 
parents asleep on a pier at night, ex- 
hausted but at last joyfully breathing 
that fresh air that after all is free to 
everyone. 

To the East Side he is a familiar 
figure, sketch book ever prominent, 
noting down intimate aspects of the 
people, appreciative impressions quick- 
ly seen, quickly drawn, succinctly ex- 
jDressed. 

His drawings are to be numbered 
among the richest of the time, rich in 



impression and expression, in those tell- 
tale details, puny, worthless, to the man 
who has made of breadth in treatment 
a technical formula with which life, 
despite its persistent arrogance may not 
interfere and yet so important to the 
real observer. 

The other extreme from the drawing 
of M}'ers is the decorative line of Aubrey 
Beardsle}'. The Englishman gathered 
abstract theories from nature and cre- 
ated out of them an expression in which 
one feels that grace and originality were 
not only sought but insisted upon. The 
originality of Myers is spontaneous, it is 
born of his love of truth and of his over- 
whelming desire to reproduce sincerely 
without fanfare, without too much rhet- 
oric, the ideas that nature conveys to 
him. His line, like the line in Rem- 
brandt's etchings, is never hard, never 
superfluous and always intimate — a line 
at once sensitive and appreciative. Also 
it is, at times, timid and always rever- 
ential — the line of the humble man, the 
appreciator, to whom the cocksureness 
of this period in which, fitted or unfitted 
for it, everyone is rushing, pell mell, 
into an expression of opinion, must be 
exceedingly distasteful. 



FRENCH ART IN AMERICA 

The Museum of French Art, under 
the direction of the French Institute 
in the United States, will hold in Janu- 
ary an exhibition of French laces, ancient 
and modern, as well as an exhibition of 
Beauvais tapestries, arranged through 
the assistance of the French Govern- 
ment, in its galleries, 400 Madison Ave- 
nue, New York. 

During the month of February an ex- 
hibition of the works of French painters, 
which is to be made an annual event, will 
be held in connection with an exhibition 
of modern French architectural works 
arranged by the Societe des Architectes 
Diplomes par le Gouvernement. 

In March there will be an annual ex- 
hibition of the works of the members 
of the museum.